I appreciate the kind words Carl M. Cannon had to say (“Untruth and Consequences,” January/February Atlantic) about my intellectual honesty and the arguments in my book, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, but I’m afraid we differ on what it was I was trying to say. Cannon writes that I argue, “Although wartime may be when presidents can get away with lying—and is perhaps even when they most feel the need to lie—recent American history suggests that it is also when the costs of a lie may be too high.”
In fact, I don’t have a problem with most genuine wartime lies. I accept the fact that troop movements and the like must be protected even at the cost of explicit and purposeful presidential dishonesty. What I object to is the manipulation of the threat of war—or a state of affairs depicted to be one of perpetual war—to defend lies that are, in fact, unrelated. In the case of Yalta, for instance, I do not object to the secrecy—and the lies necessary to protect the secrecy—of the Far Eastern agreement, when the Allies were readying an invasion of Japan and did not want to alert the enemy to the possibility of Soviet participation.
What I argue is that Franklin D. Roosevelt did himself, his party, and his country no favors in presenting his agreement with our wartime ally in Eastern Europe as something that it clearly wasn’t. The war, in that case, was an excuse for FDR to avoid telling the country that he was actually forced to make concessions to Soviet interests in Poland and elsewhere that were inconsistent with his rhetoric.
Similarly, John F. Kennedy lied about the solution to the Cuban missile crisis after the threat of war had already passed. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, like George W. Bush, lied to the nation in order to try to get us into war. Bush convinced the nation that an imminent threat to our security existed when, in reality, it did not; there was only the president’s ambition to act without the inconvenience of a properly informed public discourse about his intentions. In each case, reality demanded its tribute.
New York, N.Y.
In Carl Cannon’s otherwise terrific “Untruth and Consequences,” the author misstates the record after Franklin Roosevelt made his famous 1932 campaign pledge in Pittsburgh to balance the budget and cut spending by 25 percent. As I explain in The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Roosevelt actually fulfilled this promise at first, balancing the budget and cutting spending by 31 percent. But he quickly pioneered “off-budget” emergency spending and ran up the deficit, which is why his speechwriter jokingly advised him in 1936, “Deny you were ever in Pittsburgh.”
Carl Cannon lists three popular theories to explain George W. Bush’s behavior. A fourth theory, one that explains far more of Bush’s conduct, comes from a quote attributed to Jeb Bush in Ron Suskind’s The One-Percent Doctrine. Jeb is quoted as saying that his brother George seems to genuinely enjoy forcing other people to knuckle under. In other words, he’s a bully. He doesn’t really care whether he’s right or wrong; in fact, he might find it more fun to be wrong and still force everyone to kowtow.
This theory would explain such strange presidential behavior as resubmitting court nominations that he knows the Democrats won’t support; breaking the law on domestic surveillance when he could have easily gotten approval from the FISA Court; and insisting on a troop escalation right after the American voters, his generals, and many Republicans told him that the war had become unwinnable. This theory also explains the president’s refusal to read opinion columns and editorials—because that would mean letting someone else tell him how to think.
Carl Cannon rightly emphasizes that “a majority of Americans believed Bush ‘deliberately misled the American public’ about whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.” Unmentioned was a more serious and far-reaching deception: Bush’s successful attempt to convince Americans that the regime of Saddam Hussein bore responsibility for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Bush may have never stated directly that Iraq was the main instigator of 9/11, but he repeatedly juxtaposed comments about 9/11 and Iraq in such a way that millions of Americans came to believe that Iraq was the main force behind the 9/11 tragedy. More than 40 percent of Americans believed at one point that Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in the September 11 massacre, and a Zogby poll last year found that 85 percent of GIs surveyed in Iraq believed the U.S. mission is mainly “to retaliate for Saddam’s role” in 9/11.
Carl M. Cannon replies:
I have no quibble with Jonathan Alter on his point about Franklin Roosevelt. It’s possible, however, that Eric Alterman misunderstood me, or perhaps underestimates the full implication of his own insightful argument. I didn’t intend to characterize his contention as being that a president who misinforms the enemy about “troop movements” is the same as one who misleads his own people about the rationale for entering a war. But it does seem that an examination of wartime presidents—and if the Cold War is included, then we are talking about every president from FDR to George W. Bush—demonstrates the inherent tension between the truth- telling required of the elected leader of a democratic society and the secrecy required of a commander in chief.
Ed Gogek engages in psychoanalysis of the current president, diagnosing him as a “bully,” but I’m too old-school for that type of dissection and prefer to stick to facts. Gilbert Herod asserts in his otherwise complimentary missive that I should have taken the current president to task for public-opinion polls showing how many Americans conflate the Iraq War and the events of September 11, 2001. Perhaps he’s right: Bush doesn’t directly blame Saddam Hussein for the 9/11 attacks, but his rhetoric is slyly aimed at attracting the support of those who do. On the other hand, Bush’s critics in the Democratic Party have played the same game—selectively quoting the president to make him seem cynical or dishonest in this area. Most of this strikes me as the normal give-and-take of political discourse. In the end, Americans are responsible for their own opinions. I wouldn’t, for instance, blame LBJ or Richard Nixon for the disquieting fact that millions of Americans believe the U.S. moon landing was faked—even though the disillusionment that set in during the 1970s was partly a product of Vietnam and Watergate.